This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The ancient lure of drone

There is probably something sadly apt about choosing to write here about drone music on the first couple of days of Australia's new Parliament. Just as something primal and at times ugly seems to emerge from Canberra's House on the Hill, and just as our elected representatives turn it into hours of inept, inane, waffle, we can all be thankful that we can still rely on music to show us something great, powerful and eternally alluring in the ancient art of drone.

Drone has, indeed, been an underlying foundation to music for hundreds, for thousands, of years. You only needed to have noticed the awesome rumbles of the didgeridoo during yesterday's Welcome to Country ceremony to have seen that. Or the steady, unwavering purr and whirr, murmuring beneath the modal chants of the geat 12th Century composer Hildegard von Bingen.

It shows us how, even in the earliest music, from opposite ends of the world, drone was much more than just a steadying base - it was a foundation, a cornerstone, a landmark, in its own right. It didn't just help the other musicians stay on the line: rather, it gave the music a primeval core, the earth's very first call to life continuing to reverberate in music centuries, millennia, later.

I wrote about drone a few times in my earlier blog, focussing there especially on bands such as Sunn 0))), Boris, and Grey Daturas. Just those bands alone were enough to bear testimony to the enormous diversity of drone - the different ways in which they shape music upon, or around, those massive, earth tremoring, sustained bass notes, with instruments tuned 97 octaves below their usual pitch.

Then there are others, heaps of them, that I have discovered since then, like the sensational Melbourne-based band Whitehorse, which I heard for the first time only a few nights ago at Geelong's National Hotel, and was staggered by the way they were able to weave energy and urgency into the drone, giving the music a sense of direction and drive, reminding me at times of the grumblings beneath and above Mahler's inert primordial rock at the beginning of his Third Symphony.

Or the music of American noise artist Daniel Menche, like in his 2005 album Sirocco, which grows at first from formless static and then slowly, imperceptibly, takes shape, morphs into huge blasts of electronic drone, covering every level, every frequency, it seems, of the sonic spectrum, before it slips back again into the static, all through an incredible, single, epic arc of sound lasting over 52 minutes.

Then there are the English avant-garde experimentalists, Coil, and their fascinating 3 CD work, ANS, which I have already written about on this blog: music where the drone is not so much in the bowels of the earth as in its ether, eerie and alien.

All of this, of course, only goes to make a bit of a tip of the massive drone iceberg - an iceberg that is as old and as elemental as the earth itself. But it's enough to show that the mesmerising magentism of those long, sustained sounds can manifest itself in a whole lot of ways, producing music that, from the ancient sounds of indigenous Australia, to the avant garde of Japan, resonates with something deep and fundamental in us, and in our connection with music.

I am certainly loving this expedition into the many ways in which drone is used, both old and new, and would very much welcome any of your own stories or discoveries about this ancient, alluring element of music.


  1. i visited La Monte Young's Dreamhouse in New York, a fluffy-floored white-walled loft in Lower Manhattan. in each corner a massive speaker spits out a thousand earsplitting notes, constantly changing and shimmering. after a while (about half an hour in my case) you realize it is actually just a single chord playing, a drone; it is not the music changing but yourself. in fact, the chord has been playing since the 1980s

  2. Thanks for that Julian ... that sounds awesome and if I ever get to New York, La Monte Young's Dreamhouse will certainly be on the itinerary: a worthy rival to the performance of John Cage's 'As Slow as Possible', now taking place over a period of 639 years in Halberstadt, Germany!

  3. An interesting aside about drone = monotone = one note:
    Jan Wenner: And do you feel the same way about rock and roll now at 30 as you did at 15?
    John Lennon: Well, it will never be as new and it will never do what it did to me then, but like 'Tutti Frutti' or 'Long Tall Sally' is pretty avant-garde. I met an old avant-garde friend of Yoko's in the Village the other day who was talking about one note like he just discovered it. That's about as far out as you can get.'
    Lennon Remembers (1972) Penguin Books.(p.103)

    I find most of U2's music monotonous because it is, almost literally, a monotone, but millions like it - more testimony to the enduring power of the drone?

  4. An interesting distinction there, Patrick - monotones and monotony. The latter has certainly come to mean something pretty boring and yet, in the right hands, a monotone can be pretty spectacular I reckon. And music that goes all over the place, up the melodic hill and down its dale, can sound, well, monotonous if it is lacking in ideas and creativity. So, at least for me, a monotone has this latent store of possibilities; yet monotony just always conjures up for me the sense of drabness, dullness, boredom. I never stop being interested in the ways words from one root sprout so quickly into different meanings: because, in a way, it only goes to show how closely related even opposites sometimes are.

    I can't say much for U2 - I've listened to only one of their albums and, even that, a fair while ago.